Authoritarian personality

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This article describes the psychological trait of authoritarianism. For the form of government that bears the same name, see Authoritarianism

The authoritarian personality is an influential theory of personality developed by University of California, Berkeley psychologists, Theodor W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel Levinson, and Nevitt Sanford in their 1950 book of the same name. The personality type is defined by nine traits that were believed to cluster together as the result of psychodynamic, childhood experiences. These traits are conventionalism, authoritarian submission, authoritarian aggression, anti-intraception, superstition and stereotypy, power and "toughness," destructiveness and cynicism, projectivity, and exaggerated concerns over sexuality.[1] In brief, the authoritarian is predisposed to follow the dictates of a strong leader and traditional, conventional values.

Recently, John Dean made use of the theory (as well as research by Robert Altemeyer) to analyze the contemporary political climate in his book Conservatives without Conscience.

Psychoanalytic aspects

Adorno and his colleagues, having escaped from Europe during WWII, decided to study anti-semitism. They advertised for volunteers and administered a battery of questionnaires. They selected the most anti-semitic and least anti-semitic of the volunteers and discarded the mid-group. They then contrasted the remaining two groups, coming up with the F-scale, which measures the basic traits of the authoritarian personality.

Adorno and his colleagues regarded the fundamental basis of the authoritarian personality in terms of Freud's psychoanalytic theory, with an emphasis on early childhood experiences as the driving force of personality development. Psychoanalytic theory suggests that young children internalize the values of their fathers as a result of the unconscious, traumatic conflicts. From this process, the superego develops. Grappling with a strict, authoritarian father leads to the development of a very strong super-ego. Thereby, from the earliest childhood onward, unconscious desires and drives must be repressed and remain unsatisfied.

The unconscious conflicts that are unleashed are solved when a person projects the "forbidden" drives and aggressions of his superego onto other people. As a rule, ethnic, political, or religious minorities are selected as a screen for these psychological projections, because there are fewer social sanctions to fear. Authoritarians can often fall back on socially acceptable prejudices.

Alfred Adler provided another perspective, linking the "will to power over others" as a central neurotic trait, usually emerging as aggressive over-compensation for felt and dreaded feelings of inferiority and insignificance. According to this view, the authoritarian need to maintain control and prove superiority over others is rooted in a worldview populated by enemies and empty of equality, empathy, and mutual benefit.


Soon after the publication of The Authoritarian Personality, the theory became the subject of many criticisms. Theoretical problems involved the psychoanalytic interpretation of personality, and methodological problems focused on the inadequacies of the F-scale. Another criticism is that the theory of the Berkeley group insinuates that authoritarianism exists only on the right of the political spectrum. As a result, some have claimed that the theory is corrupted by political bias. Kreml found that the anti-authoritarian personality had the same personality characteristics as the authoritarian personality[2].

After extensive questionnaire research and statistical analysis, Altemeyer found that only three of the original nine hypothesized components of the model correlated together: authoritarian submission, authoritarian aggression, and conventionalism.[3]

Despite its methodological deficiencies, the theory of the authoritarian personality has had a major influence on research in political, personality, and social psychology. In Germany, authoritarianism has been recently studied by Klaus Roghmann, Detlef Oesterreich, and Christel Hopf. One of the most active researchers in the field today is the Dutch psychologist J.D. Meloen. One of the most active critics of the theory has been Australian psychologist John J. Ray.


  1. Adorno, T. W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D. J., & Sanford, R. N. (1950). The authoritarian personality. New York: Harper and Row (pp. 228).
  2. Kreml, William P. (1977). The anti-authoritarian personality. Oxford ; New York : Pergamon Press
  3. Altemeyer, B. (1981). Right-wing authoritarianism. University of Manitoba Press.